Donald Osborne's Rules of Collecting: Part 2

How do we define beauty in a classic car? Donald, valuations expert on Jay Leno's Garage, explains all with the aid of the Golden Rectangle...

Aesthetic satisfaction is important to most of us. It’s obviously pleasant to look at something beautiful, that brings a smile to our face and lifts our spirit. For me it’s especially true when beauty is found in a functional object, where it helps it to transcend its original purpose and make it more than a mere appliance.

I wrote about attributes of value in my last column and the first one I listed was design. It’s not necessarily the most important of the attributes but it is the one that most notice first. The effect on value that design plays comes largely from its ability to help a person to make an emotional connection with an object.

That seems awfully shallow but, let’s be honest, it’s how most of us first connect. Regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, humans are programmed to find symmetrical faces attractive.

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While a person may be brilliant, witty, clever, warm, loving, loyal and sincere, we’ll all still look at the face with the nose dead center, evenly sized, well-spaced eyes, balanced eyebrows and ears that line up on top with our brows and end at the bottom of our nose.

Since we’re talking about cars, let’s get to some specifics. Those who know me are well aware that I’m a fan of the unusual, unique and sometimes frankly weird. The iconoclastic products of coachbuilders famous and unknown have a powerful pull on me.

They don’t have to be conventionally 'beautiful', just sufficiently 'characterful'. But, as taste is among the most personal of senses, can it be quantified in value? The short answer is 'not at all' and yet 'completely'. There are basic rules of design that can be applied to automobiles as with every other three dimensional piece.

Balance is the key – a form that works from multiple angles, and allows the eye to move smoothly from one element to another contributes to balance. It’s how some shapes just seem 'right'. A great example is the Ferrari 250 GT SWB. The proportion of the length of the hood to the greenhouse' to the rear deck looks exactly right.

It also has a very good relationship of width, length and height. Nothing seems exaggerated, and it's difficult to imagine changing an aspect of the form that would improve it in some way. As Puccini’s La Boheme is considered by many 'the perfect opera' because there isn’t a bar of music that could be cut to benefit a performance, so the SWB was born as it should be.

There is a guide that governs proportion in design that comes from the ancient Greeks. It’s called the Golden Rectangle. It is a rectangle in which the proportions, formed by a square with a complimentary rectangle whose side lengths are approximately 1.618, the Greek letter phi.

It’s best seen rather than described, so here it is:

When you compare that to the Ferrari, you can see exactly how it works and why the car simply appears to be 'right'. I recently had the pleasure of returning to Kyoto, Japan for the Concorso d’Eleganza Kyoto 2018, the second such event to be held in the spectacularly beautiful Nijõ Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built 400 years ago.

I once again served as a judge at the concours and my fellow team members included two designers – Shiro Nakamura, the recently retired Head of Design for Nissan who has started his own consultancy and the young Louis de Fabribeckers, the Head of Design for the recently resurrected Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera in Milan, Italy.

Also working with us was Dominik Fischlin, the veteran and knowlegable Swiss ambassador of FIVA, the Fédération International des Véhicules Anciens and long-time member of the selection committee for the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. Clearly we all had ideas and opinions on design and style and it was bound to be an interesting experience.

And so it proved to be, as the deliberations on the top prize went on. It became clear that both Shiro and Louis had definite ideas on what was aesthetically pleasing and what might be less so. We all agreed on the facts at hand and the Best of Show award went to what I consider one of the most beautiful cars ever imagined, a 1951 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Villa d’Este coupe by Carrozzeria Touring (below).

As the runner-up we had a car with great historic interest and a stunning design in its own right; a 1946 Fiat 1100 Spider by Carrozzeria Frua (below). In fact, this one-off sporty car was the first product of Pietro Frua’s own firm. He had left Stabilimenti Farina just before WWII but the opportunity to realize his own designs didn’t come until nearly a decade later.

The Fiat 1100 Frua Spider was a revolutionary post-war design, very influenced by airplane architecture and the aerodynamic work done on pre-war competition cars. Smooth and flowing, the bodywork is always in motion with scarcely a flat panel in evidence.

Low-set headlights are set into the body and the tail features a prominent central dorsal fin with inset taillights echoing the frontal treatment. When it debuted at the first post-war concours on Lake Como, the 1947 Concorso di Como, it not only garnered second in class, but the contemporary press was full of admiration for the boldness, freshness and newness of the design vocabulary it displayed.

But – it’s not a car that is 'conventionally' beautiful, like the Alfa Villa d’Este. So does that mean that it has less value or importance as a collector’s item? I would certainly argue that it does not and in fact for many collectors would generate greater interest due to its other attributes of rarity and historical significance.

There is no doubt that most of the cars that are sought after as collector vehicles are the ones we can all agree are lovely to look at. Equally, many of the most valuable ones are the most beautiful. But, it’s easy to fall into the trap that would have appearance be the most important aspect of value.

We may be shallow but we still all have a warm place in our hearts for history.

Donald Osborne is an automotive historian, consultant and valuations expert, with a regular 'Assess & Caress' spot on Jay Leno’s Garage to talk about classic car values and where they come from. You can find his valuations website here.

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